This time the struggling TV writer needs a favor from the female sitcom star. 1,950 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
There were three types of homes I’d point out during my first tour of duty driving Starlight Tours to the “Homes Of The Stars” when I’d just moved here: homes where I knew the star lived because I’d seen the star, homes where I knew the star didn’t live because I’d made it up, and homes where I didn’t know if the star lived because the drivers I’d observed during training had told their customers the star lived there but maybe they’d made it up.
A dozen years later, I was encouraged to reach the point where this ridiculous job was providing an emotional release. I could forget about my dying sitcom-writing career and resultant financial woes and make actual human contact. And I could tell jokes for two hours at a time, or an hour and a half with shortcuts if my group was a bunch of stiffs. I was even blessed with brief moments when I could break through the fog of anxiety over my son’s cerebral palsy and the debilitating loneliness stemming from my wife’s long-term hospitalization and her doctors’ refusal to let me see her.
My customers’ biggest thrill, now as then, came from seeing a star in the flesh. It didn’t happen often but it happened. Mel Brooks, wearing a robe and slippers, politely told us it was okay to drive by his place but please don’t stop the car. Cameron Diaz ambled over in a striped blue bikini to say hi. Michael Jackson Himself once hopped out of his limo near his Carolwood Lane home and happily shook hands with my awestruck customers.
Seeing a star had the added benefit of providing me with my biggest tips, by far. I was St. Peter, I’d admitted my tourists to Heaven, and they threw money at me if I’d showed them a star. Except the Germans. German tourists, and there were lots of them, never tipped. Never. Al Jolson could come back from the dead, drop to one knee and sing “Mammy” and Germans still wouldn’t tip. Marilyn Monroe could stand over a grate with her dress blowing over her head and no underwear and – nothing. It got so that I slipped into the Hollywood Memories souvenir shop to hide from my supervisor whenever I spotted a herd of blond people with cameras heading my way. Usually they turned out to be from Arizona but I never wanted to take the chance.
In September and October, Los Angeles tends to get hit by heat waves – yes, there are seasons here. But it was January now and 101 degrees in Hollywood and had been for four days. Ten minutes into my third tour of the day, at the height of the afternoon sun, we passed the strip joint on Sunset called The Body Shop — “where they don’t fix cars” — and the air conditioner groaned and died. I could have returned to home base at the Chinese Theatre and waited for a vehicle with functioning AC. But my tourists, except for a German guy whom my boss threw in to get me back for not giving him the last bite of my burrito at lunch, were elderly New York Jews. I liked these people; they were like my favorite great aunts and uncles. I could delight them with the homes of the big stars of the previous century whom I loved, too. I didn’t want to take the chance of losing them to another driver. A tiny lady named Ruthie told me I looked like her grandson — “the nice one, who works for the county in Armonk.” So I opened my window and continued west on Sunset, past the Comedy Store, past the Hustler emporium and forged ahead into Beverly Hills.
I should have remembered that elderly New York Jews don’t take well to sweltering car rides. They became less garrulous. Their faces reddened. By the time I reached the Beverly Drive intersection where the Beverly Hillbillies drove their jalopy at the beginning of every episode, my Hawaiian shirt was heavy with perspiration and my ass started to itch.
I altered my route by turning right on Lomitas and left onto Bedford where there were homes I knew would please this group. Lana Turner and later Merv Griffin had lived at 730 Lomitas. A guy named Herbie lamented the demise of the old TV hosts. (“You know what Carson had, Eric? Talent. Talent with a capital T.”) Around the corner on Elevado, I pointed out Johnny Carson’s huge white mansion. Except it wasn’t Johnny Carson’s huge white mansion. I’d made it up, and Ruthie knew it.
“Johnny Carson lived at 400 Saint Cloud Road in Bel Air, California.” She couldn’t have been more pleased with herself than if she’d just performed, in a stirring soprano, the entire score of Fiddler On The Roof. “I read a wonderful biography,” she added, “and my mind — unfortunately for you, young man — is like a steel trap.”
I’d never been caught before. I muttered something about this house being where Johnny lived with his second wife but I didn’t fool anyone. I was the beloved grandson they’d caught stealing cash from their purses or wallets, and they were furious.
I made a quick right and then another onto Roxbury Drive. Jack Benny, the most popular comedian on radio. and I revisited his most famous joke (Crook: “Your money or your life!” Benny (pauses): ”I’m thinking it over!”) – and was rewarded with bitter silence. Then Betty Grable. “Any World War II vets here?” If there were, no one was saying, although the German glared at me. I was suddenly very very tired. My shirt was soaked through and my ass was glued to my seat.
I made a sharp turn toward Lucille Ball’s and Jimmy Stewart’s homes, across from each other. But I couldn’t figure out where to go next. Ginger Rogers’s place was nearby; they must love Ginger Rogers. But I smacked the tour van into something and we stopped with a shocking jolt. I heard a cry behind me and turned around, wild-eyed I assume, and saw blood on Ruthie’s forehead. I’d smashed into the curb, maybe a fire hydrant, too. Stanley pulled out a handkerchief and shouted, “First aid! First aid!” I ran out to check the front end of the minibus and wondered whether I’d killed an old lady and if my son was having a seizure and if I’d ever make love to my wife again.
There was a small dent, barely noticeable. Inside, Ruthie held the handkerchief to her forehead. I leaned into her and shouted “Ruthie! How are you doing?” Her face was pale and her lips and cheeks drooped disturbingly.
“I’m suing you,” Ruthie said, “if I live.”
A name jumped into my head, someone who could maybe help me and shut up about it like I’d shut up about her supposed religious experience a couple of months ago. It was too disturbing to think about now except for the part where she took off all her clothes. The last thing she’d said to me was, “Don’t talk about it, ever.” And I haven’t mentioned it to anyone. Wait, that wasn’t the last thing. No, the last thing she said to me was the lie that even though she was firing me off her hit series, she’d make sure I’d get paid. Which was why I was driving this hellbound tour.
She owes me! Now that’s funny, I thought: a Hollywood hotshot acknowledging a debt.
“Who’s your favorite TV star?” I shouted. Ruthie was glassy-eyed but breathing. “Come on, who?”
“Who cares?” went a sour male voice.
“Who Cares, the wonderful Chinese actor! Anybody else?” I didn’t dare look at my face in the mirror.
Silence. A female voice, weak yet surly, finally answered, “Julie Louie Dreyfus.”
“Julia’s fantastic! And who’s even funnier and more stunning than her?” lt was a challenge I believed even in their angry and debilitated state at least one of these TV and movie fans would rise to.
After a moment a man croaked out, “Jill Racine.”
“Jill Racine! The most popular comedienne since Lucy! Whose daughter Daisy happens to attend the same preschool as my son Ryder…”
So, in my panic and desperation, I literally headed for the hills to treat my Jews to “a very special detour I’ve never done before!”
Ten minutes later I curled down Jill’s driveway. I’d detoured from my usual patter as well, mixing concern for Ruthie’s well-being with phony but tasty morsels about Jill’s daughter and my son.
“Daisy and Ryder are three,” I said, “but they’ve decided to get married. And you know what? Daisy doesn’t even know Ryder’s handicapped.”
One lady couldn’t help herself and asked, “Your boy, he plays at her house?”
“Sure. Usually they come to our place, though. Jill wants to make sure Daisy sees how poor people live.” That earned me one resentful chuckle.
My ass itched relentlessly. We passed a gardener watering bushes and I badly wanted to stop the car, whip off my pants and hose myself down.
A gleaming green BMW shot toward us and avoided a head-on collission in the driveway only by totaling the row of bushes. The male driver never looked at us as he sped past. It was broad comedy when the gardener actually dove out of the way to save himself. I don’t think my passengers noticed.
We reached the gate. With another sparkling smile to disguise my near certainty that Jill wouldn’t be home or would pretend she wasn’t, I announced to the intercom, “Eric Ornstill for Jill!” then added craftily, “I don’t have Ryder with me this time.”
“Hold on,” said a bored male voice.
I winked at my crew, whose excitement and anticipation had now outstripped their anger and thirst. We waited in silence, except for a moan from Ruthie, and I tried unsuccessfully to focus on my next move.
The gate opened. It opened! A delighted communal gasp went up behind me. A few people applauded. I drove through Jill Racine’s gate, feverishly scratching my ass. I parked in the long circular driveway under a tree with thin branches and frail purple blooms, part of the spectacular exotic garden at the front of Jill’s Mediterranean estate. I listened to the birds singing and breathed in the sweet revitalizing smell of the flowers and, despite everything, nearly laughed. It was like I’d led my ancient Hebrews back into the Garden of Eden, and I dreamed that the slate of my awful transgressions was about to be wiped clean.
Intent on reasserting control, over my crowd and myself, I ordered, “Wait in the car. She’s not expecting us. Ruthie, hang in there.”
My people quieted. Feigning nonchalance, I walked the path to Jill’s front door and rang the doorbell.
Jill herself opened it. That face. That body. I was so glad I wanted to hug her, or fall to my knees. “The fuck do you want?” she greeted me.
Cheers and applause burst out behind me and Jill spied the carful of tourists. She beamed at them and waved and said to me, “Are you fucking insane?” I noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra.
“I need your help. One of them’s hurt. Say hi, let me deal with her, give them water and we’ll go. Please. Please.” Absolutely, I was begging.